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Malta Diary ~ The ever-changing panorama of an island’s buses

13 Mintoff's one-colour re-shuffleLord Arthur Wellesley Wellington may well have won the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 (although the Prussian Army claimed final victory) but two decades later in the British Parliament he lost the Battle of Public Transport. A proposal was put before the House to introduce cheap One Penny fares and Third Class carriages.

Wellington rigorously opposed the motion on grounds “it would encourage the working class to travel” – with all the connotations of the “upper classes” matching ‘n mixing with the “lower classes”. Well, he certainly and thankfully lost that one. A form of cheap public bus transport was introduced in Malta in the early 1920s when the enterprising entrepreneur Joe Gasan introduced a few buses. Gasan was a well-known businessman who had secured the Ford franchise for Malta and Gozo at a time when automobiles were becoming a rage.

There was however a great problem. Illiteracy was rampant and numeracy extremely limited. Only the “privileged classes” could make head or tail of exhibited bus routes, destinations and bus numbers. Then, they had a brilliant idea. Colour codes were the answer. Thus, routes and destinations were defined and a colour attached to the applicable route, a system immediately espoused by the public and a system that endured generation after generation.

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Most of the engines were Ford and Dodge and the chassis built and painted in Malta.

Valletta was the central hub with two terminals. The pea green colour bus was the Sliema route via Floriana, Msida and Gzira, and back; the light blue and white stripe bus went all the way to Mellieha via Birkirkara, Mosta and St Paul’s Bay; the bright red bus to Birkirkara via Hamrun, and so on and so forth with some really colourful combinations.

And that was that and things went swimmingly for decades.

However, a few drawbacks began to develop. The colour of bus tied it down to one route although a lick of paint could easily change that. A licence system developed to cover the various routes and a bus-owner had to have a licence for a particular route.

The more profitable the route, the more expensive the licence and in time licence owners could re-sell their route to other owners and a whole trading racket developed.

Fares were strictly controlled by the Government so the shady dealings in licences did not concern the public. Times were prompt and regular although as recently as the 1970s the last buses made their final day’s journey by leaving the Valletta terminal at 9pm.

The system worked well so if it’s not broke, why fix it?

In 1971 Malta elected a new Prime Minister and Domenic Mintoff set about making sweeping changes. He pronounced the colour system as “degrading” and reminiscent of “colonial days” when illiteracy was rampant.

As from henceforth all buses had to have one colour, a light pea green and were to show numbers, routes and destinations. Later they became yellow and orange in an effort to re-introduce the panorama of colour.

Over the next 20 years industrial litigation became frequent mainly concerning fares, still controlled by the Government but opposed by bus owners alarmed at rising costs. Consequently the service and the condition of buses rapidly deteriorated with many rattling bone-shakers still operating.

Unfortunately too, the occupation of being a “bus driver” was looked down upon as being the only outlet for the uncouth and for ruffians – and many drivers brought this on themselves. I can well remember being on a bus where the driver suddenly stopped and decided to cool off with a beer from a nearby bar or maybe wanted a takeaway sandwich. Public conveniences also made for unofficial bus stops.

All this caused aggravation and was also a source of merriment mainly for tourists experiencing a ride in these ramshackle contraptions. The driver’s booth was decorated with plastic curtains and plastic flowers and there were always effigies and pictures of Jesus and the Madonna, somewhat contrasting to the frequent rudeness and blasphemous oaths of the drivers. A few buses with a/c were later introduced but more often than not the system did not operate. Drivers also frequently short-changed tourists.

Every bus had a nickname emblazoned on the external front, with names like “Roy Rogers”, “Elvis Presley” and “Life in Heaven”. Every bus too had internal slogans like “God Help Us” and the ever-popular “Verbum Dei Caro Factum Est” (and the word of God was made man).

Finally, the situation became intolerable and some three years ago the Malta Government swept it all away and introduced an Arriva national bus service which turned out to be a total flop. The Arriva Management must bear some of the blame, but they were horrendously mislead by local sources.

The Arriva “bendy-buses” were a disaster in Malta’s narrow and heavily congested roads; the routes were badly designed and time schedules were hay-wire. Arriva raised a lot of expectations as to how they would “revolutionise” the service but this failed miserably. Last year Arriva called it a day after bendy-buses were banned and after substantial financial losses were incurred. The Malta Government’s Malta Transport Authority bought the buses and is currently running the system. The latest is that a private contractor is being lined-up, tipped to be a Spanish operator.

One fears there are still a load of “revolutions” yet to materialise before the whole troublesome system is finally nailed down.


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